Monday, September 03, 2012

The Fiction of Politics: Sweet Home Alabama and American Beauty

I suspect that most of my small audience is liberal types, media and design and art and culture people who identify strongly with things like academia, city life, secularism, and technocracy. In case you haven't noticed from previous posts, this blog comes from that framework, as well. I think it's important to step back and reflect on those things once in a while.

I rarely notice politics in film, except when I'm watching a documentary (those tend to make open statements on politically charged ideas), or when the politics are farted clumsily into the story as a bunch of generic devices (see: The Dark Knight Rises, Avatar). I suspect I frequently miss the broader political assumptions of films I'm watching. Sometimes, the politics only surface at the broad philosophical level, with frameworks that have political implications... like "war is the way to solve the tough problems," "business people are greedy," and "teenagers are bad decision makers."

Other times, the politics are rather more immediate.

I saw Sweet Home Alabama on TV today, and it struck me again -- just as it did the first time I saw it -- that though this film doesn't adhere perfectly to conservative dogma, it comes from a very conservative framework. However the film wants to apologize for it, the message can't be scrubbed away: city life has ruined Melanie, and though it creates an illusion of happiness for her, only the earthy, family-oriented, idealistic humanity of Southern country living can really give her lasting fulfillment. The Yankee North is caught up in the pursuit of money and status; New Yorkers are self-absorbed, ambitious at the expense of authenticity, and closed off from the awesome power of nature and childhood.

The cues are clear: Melanie's parents won't like Andrew because "he's a democrat" (and their assumed reaction turns out to be right, as if they exist in Melanie's subconscious, warning her against this course of action). Kate Hennings, played by Candace Bergen, is a transparent caricature of Hillary Clinton, with touches of other PR-happy politicians. At the end of the film, Melanie reverts entirely back to a stomping, drinking country girl, as if city life was a dress she put on for a few years while she played around in fashion (a very successful career that she gives up completely, to no fanfare whatsoever).

There are positive portrayals of gays in the film, to its credit. You may read this as a whitewash of the actual attitude toward gays in the South, or you may feel it's refreshing, because you know that many rural Southerners aren't as homophobic as the liberal rumors would have you believe. Nevertheless, there is no real confrontation with the politics... none of the gay characters make any mention of wishing they could get married or adopt kids. In fact, the film conveniently glosses over the fact that Bobby Ray had to stay in the closet for so long in the first place.

The film's attitude toward homosexuals feels rather like the attitude of some liberal films toward religious leaders: Shepard Book in Serenity, Father Barry in On The Waterfront, Friar Tuck in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves... though the films themselves are clearly secular, they make a gesture toward religious figures to acknowledge the positive, paternal spirit that a man of God can embody. Such films tend to ignore the fact that the main characters are not churchgoers, and that they are often acting in a very unreligious way.

My first reaction to Sweet Home Alabama was lukewarm indifference, but after I thought over it and picked up on the conservative bent, it gradually turned to annoyance and aversion (yes, I do change my opinions of films after having some time to think about them... my initial reaction has no special authority). Now, seeing the film for a second time, I have a chance to step back and consider that refined reaction, and I think that Sweet Home Alabama has something to teach me, especially considered in relation to many drama and character study films. Particularly, it can teach me something as a liberal cinephile who doesn't want to be irrevocably stuck in his own dogma.

I sometimes forget that serious films often (very often) have a liberal framework to them. Some of the greatest enduring celluloid antagonists are the bugaboos of liberal identity politics: racists, sexists, businesspeople, and military authorities. Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Avatar, A Beautiful Mind, even down to The Muppet Movie: films considered "serious idea films" overwhelmingly come from a socially-conscious, vaguely leftist framework, and it's easy to become blind to that.

Consider, for instance, American Beauty, in which (SPOILERS AHEAD STOP READING IF YOU WANT TO SEE IT TONIGHT) an ex-army homophobe murders a suburban dad, just as he reaches some sort of personal epiphany about his place in the universe. To us liberals, who are consciously sensitive to issues of racial, sexual, and heteronormative marginalization, that's pretty unremarkable. But how would it have changed the movie if that murder had been committed by the angsty pot-dealing teenager trying to impress his girlfriend? You know... the one who was vaguely glorified, in an offhand way, in the course of his character development?

So if you're a liberal cinephile, think about Sweet Home Alabama, and remember: if that movie inspires frustration, that might be how a media-literate conservative feels all the time. That might be why conservatives often claim to be oppressed by a liberal media conspiracy. And if you're a conservative cinephile, take some comfort in the fact that Sweet Home Alabama is out there, an enjoyable, technically competent, well-acted romantic comedy that makes liberals feel as ideologically needled as Avatar makes you feel.

I have another hypothesis: that Will Ferrell made a double-feature of political parodies in Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory, satirizing the right and the left, respectively, through sports. I need to see both of those before I can really sink my teeth into that idea, though.

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